My Time With Fr. Benedict

Not many married men can say they lived the religious life for a time. I had the very unique blessing of spending 3 and a half years as a Franciscan Friar. I could fill volumes on what I learned during that time in religious life in general, but I want to give a brief reflection here on what I learned specifically from Fr. Benedict Groeschel.

Humility and Charity

As a “postulant” in the community, I had the privilege of accompanying Fr. Benedict for a week as he taught a course on Psychology and Spirituality. My first task was to drive him from New York City to Arlington, VA. Postulancy is the first 6 months in the community, before a friar receives the habit, and before he feels like he knows his left hand from his right. It’s the religious equivalent of being a 13-year-old boy with braces, acne and bad hair. It is the time of “asking”; not being responsible for the care of a man like Fr. Benedict. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. When we first set out, I was driving a bit cautiously to say the least. At one point Fr. Benedict said to me, “You’re gonna cause an accident if you don’t pick it up. You don’t stop at yellow lights in Manhattan. Drive!” It was a bit snappy the way he said it, but I was too nervous to be hurt. I just tried to pick up the pace.

Later that evening we prayed evening prayer together. I don’t remember the verse, but Fr. Benedict offered a short reflection on the psalm to me. It was about looking at ourselves, and then not being ashamed of the weaknesses we find there. Then he said, “Like how I was short with you in the car this morning”. At the time he was 70 years old, a Catholic rock star, with a resume that would fill 30 pages. He was paying attention to the 4-second exchange that happened in the car that morning, and humbly admitted it to one of the postulants in the community he helped to found.

The Hippo

Fr. Benedict loved the hippopotamus. People brought him small hippo figures as gifts once they realized this. To Fr. Benedict the hippo symbolized the Church. He said, “It’s one of God’s ugliest creatures, but you gotta love it.”

Clean Up Your Act

I once crossed paths with Fr. Benedict after I left the friars and was pursuing my doctorate. I was in my third year, consumed with papers, exams, and practicum. When he saw me my hair was too long, and my short beard was not trimmed. He pulled me aside, making sure we were not within earshot of anyone else, and gently admonished me saying, “You need to clean yourself up. You might still be a student, but what are you trying to represent here? You’re a professional now, and people are supposed to trust you. Don’t think because you used to wear one thing everyday and grow out a scraggly beard you should do the same now”.

Keep up the good work

3 months ago I visited Fr. Benedict for a quotation to use for marketing materials for www.wellcatholic.com (A healthcare directory I created). He was so genuinely impressed with what I’ve accomplished that it moved me to tears. He said to me, “Your generation, the JPII generation, is making it normal to be what we used to call ‘lay apostles’ when I was a kid. That’s what you are, a lay apostle. Keep up the good work”. I offer this reflection not because of what he said to me personally, but THAT he said it. One thing that is often said about Fr. Benedict is how much of a FATHER he is to anyone who knows him. This exchange exemplifies so much of that. Even though I was visiting him in a nursing home, and had to help him up to walk to the bathroom, his focus was still on being a father to me.

True abandonment and surrender

I think the most important aspect of Fr. Benedict’s life that needs to be learned from – and the one that could be the focus for a case for beatification if there was to be one – is that of Fr. Benedict’s absolute surrender to Divine Providence. There are so many ways that Fr. Benedict had to surrender his will to that of the Father. He was a Franciscan who loved his community, but was forced to leave it because of the ideals he wanted to pursue. He wanted to live humbly with the poor, which he did for a time, and then was forced to live at a retreat center in Larchmont, NY, in a grand residence on the water (A residential area he called the world’s largest cemetery with lights). After a car hit him in 2004, he was given more attention than he ever wanted. He was restricted from offering the simple service to the poor that he wanted to offer his whole life.

The final sacrifice for Fr. Benedict though, and submission of his will to the Father in abandonment and surrender was that of his intellect and cognitive capacities. Fr. Benedict had an extremely intelligent mind. He had multiple degrees, was a professor in multiple disciplines, and remembered almost everything he ever read. Yet in recent years, his cognitive capacities began to deteriorate. He used to say that God kept him alive after his accident because he still had purgatory to do on earth. At first he was referring to his physical limitations, but I don’t think he could have anticipated what kind of suffering he would endure at the mental limitations that were waiting for him for the last 5 years of his life.

First he would slip up during talks, misquoting someone or repeating himself. Every once in a while he lost his train of thought and would just pause in the middle of saying something. Then he couldn’t teach his courses anymore. The worst part of this suffering came from when the media devilishly took advantage of his dementia and quoted him regarding the priest scandals. The paradox of his condition was that he didn’t even remember what he said or why there was such uproar over something he said. His dementia never progressed though to completely protect him from the unspeakable pain knowing that people were saying he caused great harm to the suffering of victims that he tirelessly spent his life working to protect and heal.

frbFr. Benedict chose his name, not after the founder of the Benedictines but St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th century French saint who suffered from mental illness. As a psychologist, Fr. Benedict prayed often for his intercession and looked to his example of simplicity, humility, and abandonment to God’s will. It should not escape our notice then that Fr. Benedict suffered from dementia, a form of mental illness, in the last years of his life. When I visited him a few months ago Fr. Benedict was joyful, witty, and living in his circumstances with the class and abandonment of a saint. He accepted his lot in life, every phase and every aspect, with total trust in the goodness of God. He did it while loving everyone around him, including his enemies, with charity and gentleness and touching fatherhood.

 

I shed joyful tears this morning as I meditated on the beauty of Fr. Benedict’s life. I realized that he died only short moments after the community he helped to form was gathered together in the Bronx to celebrate the Transitus of St. Francis. This somber celebration was one of my favorite memories as a friar. The life of Francis was acted out by the novice brothers, and culminated with a hauntingly beautiful procession of the body of Francis around the church, with lights off and candles lit, as chanting resounded from the choir loft. Last night, moments after this passing of one of the greatest saints in the history of world into eternal life was remembered, one of his sons also passed in his own transitus. As the candles were blown out in the Bronx, the sun rose over the hills in Assisi and friars there prayed their morning prayer in honor of St. Francis. The fact that he was waiting to embrace his son with open arms today on his feast is one of the most beautiful things that could have ever happened to crown this man’s passion with the hope of the resurrection.

 

Do you have any Fr. Benedict stories? I’d love to hear them, share them in the comments below.

7 Comments
  • Audrey Warn
    Posted at 18:27h, 04 October Reply

    In 2007, with my then 14 year old son and 4 year old daughter,I took an early morning (super early morning) train from upper Westchester to NYC to attend the ordination Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sitting on the Madison Avenue side of the Cathedral with the warm morning breeze wafting through, my daughter asleep in my lap and my son every bit the little “man” in his blue blazer a “paternal,” protective arm draped around us both, a lot just felt “right”…the beauty of the setting, the majesty of the Mass, the sacredness of what was about to transpire and… me, with these two amazing gifts from God by my side. Even the mantilla I hastily pulled out before we left home (though I love them, I don’t often wear them and hadn’t in a long time) stayed securely on my head for a change! In those days, first assignments were given downstairs before the new priests came up and stationed themselves for first blessings. My son was desirous to receive one from every new priest, but my daughter, bless her heart, was getting just a little antsy with the wait. In a very commanding but loving tone, my son suggested I take his sister across the street “to that doll store”. He would wait outside on the steps of the Cathedral until assignments were done and we could head in together for blessings. I did as I was told! And, in a half-hour returned to his ever present, warm and welcoming smile. “You’ll never guess who I just met mom!” Father Groeschel, founder of the CFRs!” Yes. He was 14. Yes. He loved the CFRs. To him, they were Catholic rock stars! “The real deal” he’d say. “Well, what did you say to him?” I asked. He had actually been eating a street hot dog at the time (14 year old boys don’t go without food for any length of time), turned around and found himself inches apart from Father Benedict as he was exiting the Cathedral. “All I could get out was “Hey. My mom really loves you!”. To which Father Benedict replied “And you my son, what do you think of me?” to which they both laughed. They had a nice exchange after that, a few minutes that remain precious to my son, now almost 22. As a mom, it really doesn’t get much better than that day– a day filled with precious, intimate moments where the natural and the supernatural collide, where Heaven and Earth met in the the Sacraments of course, but, also each time we opened ourselves up to a loving encounter like on the steps of a Cathedral, where a “rock star” priest took a few moments to share Christ’s love with my child. It is a very small encounter, but one I and my son still hold dear. Small encounters, small acts of kindness, add up to big, Heavenly-sized love! Rest in Peace dear Father Benedict. And, thank you!

  • Patty Bennett
    Posted at 08:26h, 05 October Reply

    Dear Father Benedict always loved children so much. My daughter Anna and I met him briefly when he came to give a talk at a nearby parish years ago. Anna has a slight developmental disability, along with some very obsessive behaviors. While there are some struggles with this, there are also some of God’s blessings. One of the surprise blessings is that she has always been drawn to holy priests. Other teenagers write fan mail to rock stars; last night Anna wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking for prayers.

    When we met Father Benedict after the talk, people were lined up to ask for his blessing. Anna ran to get in line. Immediately after Father blessed her, she ran right back to the end of the line for another blessing! She was just a toddler at the time.

    At the end of the line, Anna approached, asking for a blessing. Father said with a smile, “Didn’t I just bless you?–Oh well, extra prayers never hurt anyone!” Amen to that!

    He was so gentle, understanding and patient. During the media frenzy about one of his comments, Father Benedict handled the uproar in such a calm, Christ-like way. Even in his weakened state, he responded with such grace. Father Benedict always gave such great talks about offering up suffering, but it was in his life that he gave such great examples. He always cooperated with our Lord to bring good out of suffering.

    Rest in Peace Father Benedict.

  • nick
    Posted at 11:17h, 05 October Reply

    8 years ago i found myself in a terribly dark place. i was completely enthralled in the evils of the world in every imaginable way. i had hit rock bottom. through a brief moment of clarity in all of my depression, i made the decision that i needed to transfer out of my school to Franciscan University. It was around March, application deadlines had long passed, and i quickly slipped back. i will never forget the saturday morning i received a call at 8am. it was only by Gods grace I woke up, considering i was out until 5am in my normal debauchery. Fr Benedict was on the other line. It was a brief conversation of which I remember little, but Fr Benedict asked me ” Nicholas, do you want to change? Then you will go to Franciscan.” My application was accepted later that day.

    The seemingly simple question he asked was one that opened a door to change my life forever. He didnt know me, he didnt know my story; he went out of his way, and 5 minutes of Fr Benedicts life changed the entirety of mine.
    I was blessed to have met Fr Benedict a few times, to have gone to Confession to him, and had prayed with him. I am so thankful God used him in my life.

  • Br. Angelus
    Posted at 11:39h, 05 October Reply

    Dr. Greg,

    Thanks for your reflection and prayers. Email me when you get a second!

    Br. Angelus

  • jenny
    Posted at 15:03h, 05 October Reply

    “Psychology and Spirituality” I think that this should be a pre-requisition for priesthood.
    Any sin we confess, has a big problem behind it. And usually that problem is a Psychological/ Emotional problem.

    I hear that a priest is not a psychologist – it may be true – but in this case, the priest is useless in confession, as just to accuse people for their sins, the priest does more damage, than good.

    I think that a priest, has at least, to re-direct the person towards a psychiatrist. Otherwise, that person come back with the same sin, over and over again, being unable to get to the root of the “sin”.

  • Arlene Mango
    Posted at 17:41h, 06 October Reply

    Dear Greg, thank you for that wonderful insight into Fr.Groeschel. He was the BEST. And beloved by the whole family…

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